Young Ivan Krylov and Catherine the Great: Russian Pornography and French Libertinage

Vera Proskurina, Cornell University

Scholars of the eighteenth century agree about the exceptional satirical resonance of Krylov’s early works. Some scholars have seen Krylov’s extravagant literary image within the narrow limits of the Russian gentry’s struggle for political rights (G. Gukovskij, P. Berkov). Some have even elaborated the image of Krylov as a tireless plotter against Catherine II and a hidden member of the so-called “Panin opposition,” working for the interests of Paul (Ja. Gordin). However, both the sociological and conspiratorial approaches need to be seriously reexamined, insofar as they obscure Krylov’s more complex political and literary strategy.

Constructing his authorial stance, Krylov primarily oriented himself on the models of French libertinage. Among the most characteristic features of a typical French libertine of the eighteenth century were freethinking, an anti-clerical (even atheistic) outlook and an emancipated (even Bohemian) style of behavior. The libertines’ literary life was full of scandals, and their preferred means of communication with literary opponents was the lampoon. Their works combined metaphysical themes with conspicuously pornographic plots (like the most famous libertine novel, Thérèse philosophe by Marquis d’Argent). Krylov was very well acquainted with this tradition: almost half of the letters of his Počta duxov (The Spirits’ Mail) were inspired by the prose by d’Argent and Mercier. The “Voltairian” and atheistic environment of the early Krylov (and his colleagues I. Raxmaninov and A. Klušin) and the personal and literary scandals featuring Krylov’s “lampooning” letters and comedies correspond very well to the Western libertine model.

Erotic plots and pictures of the “desacralized king” were among the most popular topics among French libertines. The peculiarities of the Russian situation allowed Krylov to combine both topics. The piquant details of the last years of Catherine the Great and her latest favorite P. Zubov became a permanent subject of Krylov’s works. Thus, Krylov’s story “Noči” (“Nights,” 1792) represents a chain of erotic scenes (associated with Russian court life) linked by the narrator’s ironic meditations and saturated with pornographic linguistic tricks. Krylov invokes the style and the language of French gallant pornography in these texts. He plays with the pornographic connotations of some words and expressions (like “barometer which ascends and descends” or “to converse with a lady”) that correspond with popular metaphors of French argot which were used in well-known texts of French libertine poetry (e.g., the poem “The Jesuits’ Barometer” by Pierre de Beauveset).

Krylov’s “oriental story” “Kaib” (1792) not only contains many pornographic expressions, but depicts P. Zubov (under the name “Dursan”) as a pornographic hero. Kaib’s adviser Dursan is endowed with only one admirable feature: he has a big and very well maintained “beard.” The erotic meaning of the “beard” corresponds not only with French tradition (as in the poem “The Power of the Beard” by d’Offerwille), but Lomonosov’s “Hymn to a Beard.” Krylov’s use of French argot as well as his play with pornographic texts of French libertine literature allowed him to conduct a very twisted and complicated game with Empress Catherine the Great.